Developing a Robust Migration Workflow for Preserving and Curating Hand-held Media


The full story of this piece of work, which was originally presented by the primary author at iPres 2010, can be found here: Developing a Robust Migration Workflow for Preserving and Curating Hand-held Media.

To complement that original publication, I thought it would be a good idea to pull out some of the technical reference parts of the paper and make them easier to find. Currently, this is just a direct copy of the more technical section of that paper, but I’ll hone it down over time.

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Migration Strategy

In general, we wish to maintain the authenticity of the original item as closely as possible. Ideally, therefore, we would aim to perform a reversible migration, such that the digital entity we create from the original data-carrier could be used to create a new data-carrier that is functionally equivalent to the original.

To understand how this might best be achieved, we first summarise how data-carrying media are designed. In order to function, any data-carrier capable of carrying more than one bitstream must use some kind of container format to arrange the bitstreams on the carrier in a way which allows them to be reliably disentangled when read. This is achieved in a range of different ways depending on the media, e.g. by using disk partition maps and file-systems. Necessarily, in order to allow the bitstreams to be distinguished, these container formats must also specify some metadata such as the filename associated with the bitstream, where on the disk it can be found, and how big it is. Usually, the container metadata also includes checksums and error-correction codes to help compensate for any bit loss during creation, aging or use of the media.

By definition, it is impossible to extract the individual bitstreams from the carrier without also stripping away the container. If we are fully confident that we are aware of all of the potential metadata that we might wish to keep, then this information can be extracted along with the bitstreams. But evaluating the auxiliary container-level metadata is time consuming, and if we are forced to make this evaluation directly from the physical media then the media handling process becomes extremely difficult to scale.

Fortunately, this bottleneck can usually be avoided by creating disk images. Here, rather than extracting bitstreams directly to files in a new file system, we attempt to extract a single large bitstream that represents a precise copy of both the contained bitstreams and the container. In this way, we preserve the logical content as completely and as closely to the original as possible. Note this does not necessarily preserve the precise physical layout of the data. For example, a hard disk cloned in this manner will contain the same information as the original, but will not have the same degree of data fragmentation, as the block-level data layout will have changed. However, the clone is logically equivalent to the source disk, and this is entirely sufficient for our purposes.

Critically, this approach also allows us to proceed quickly, migrating the content as soon as possible while minimizing the risk of discarding any data or metadata during bitstream extraction or container transformation. By creating a disk image we can move the original submissions onto safer storage without compromising the authenticity of the originals. This approach is also common in the digital forensics area, and well-established practices are in place for many types of media [7].

Variations in Carrier Type

While the broad strategy of making disk images is a sound one, there are a number of practical difficulties implementing this approach due to the variations in the types of disk and the degree to which the disks conform to the appropriate standards. The variation in disk formats arises due to the complex history of the medium, and the ways in which the form has been extended or modified to cover different use cases. The original Red Book [12] standard from Phillips specified how to construct a digital audio compact disk, with raw audio bitstreams arranged into a series of session and tracks, along with the physical layout and analogue tolerances to which this format should be constructed. In the following years, a wide range of other standards were published (the so-called Rainbow Books [30]), covering extensions and modifications to this base format, such as CD-ROMs for data, mixed-mode audio and data disks, extended embedded metadata, technical protection mechanisms, and so on.

Since then, and in reaction to the complexity of this group of standards, the vendor community has worked to standardize the way in which the data is laid out upon the disk, via the Universal Disk Format [16]. Both DVD and Blue Ray media use this disk format, which specifies just one container format, but captures the different media use cases in the standardization of the bitstreams within the container, rather than via the structure of the container itself. This is not done for reasons of preservation, but for reasons of ease of creation. Working with a single image makes disk mastering much more manageable. However, this convergence is also extremely welcome from a preservation point of view, as a single class of disk image can be used to cover a wide range of media.

For our older material, we must be able to cope with this variation in form, and even for newer materials, we need to be able to cope with the common variations in the way in which the media conform to the standards. This is particularly true for consumer writable media, where the software that creates the disks does not always behave reliably. This manifests itself not just as systematic deviation from the standards due to software or hardware problems, but also as variability in the quality of the disks due to the reliability of the creation process. For example, when creating (‘burning‘) a writable CD, the process can fail and create unreadable disks (known as ‘coasters’), particularly when the disk creation speed is high. For this reason, optical disks should be checked immediately after creation, but this is difficult to enforce when working with external parties.

With some assistance from the curators we were able to identify some particularly ‘difficult’ collections, and used those as a starting point to determine what type of variation there was in the optical media format. Across our collections, we encountered a very wide range of disk formats on optical media:

  • DVD [8] or CD-ROM [9,13] data disks in ISO 9660/UDF format (containing TIF, JPG, audio data files, etc.).
  • DVD Video [8] disks in ISO 9660/UDF format [17][18] (containing video data, e.g. VOB files).
  • HFS+ (Mac) [3] format data disks.
  • Red Book [14] Audio disks with sessions and tracks
  • Yellow Book [13] Mixed-mode compact disks with a leading or trailing ISO 9660 data track containing mixed media along-side the audio tracks.
  • Malformed ‘audio’ disks arranged in audio-like tracks, but the tracks themselves containing WAV files instead of raw CDR data. The ISO 9660 specification [17] defines a disk image file format that can be used to clone data disks. This approach gives one single archive file that includes all the digital files contained on a CD-ROM, DVD, or other disk (in an uncompressed format) and all the file system metadata, including boot sector, structures, and attributes. This same image can be used to create an equivalent CD-ROM, and indeed mastering data disks is one of the purposes of the file format. It can also be opened using many-widely avail-able software applications such as the 7-Zip file manager [15] or the WinRAR archive shareware [21].

Similarly, for later disks, such as DVDs, the UDF disk format specifies the layout of DVD disks and a general DVD image file format which is backwards-compatible with ISO 9660. The situation is similar for HFS+, as the data can be extracted as a single contiguous disk image without any significant data loss.

While CD-ROM, DVD and HFS+ format disks are reasonably well covered by this approach, there are some important limitations. For example, the optical media formats all support the notion of ‘sessions’ – consecutive additions of tracks to a disk. This means that a given carrier may contain a ‘history’ of different versions of the data. By choosing to extract a single disk image, we only expose the final version of the data track, and any earlier versions, sessions or tracks are ignored. For our purposes, these sessions are not significant, but this may not be true elsewhere.

For DVD disks, the main gap is that the format specification permits a copy protection system that depends on data that is difficult to capture in a disk image. Specifically, a data signal in the lead-in area of the disk contains information required to decrypt the content, but most PC DVD drives are unable to read this part of the disk, by design. Fortunately, this does not represent a problem for the Endangered Archives content, as it does not rely on media that use DRM or other technical right restriction methods.

The situation for Red and Yellow Book Compact Disks [13] is significantly more complex. As mentioned above, the overall disk structure, the sessions and tracks that wrap the data, are not covered by the ISO 9660 file format. Furthermore, it does not capture the additional ‘subchannel’ data that lies alongside the main data channel, which is used for error correction, copy protection and more esoteric purposes (see the CD+G standard [31] for an example). This information is often hidden from the end user, and indeed many CD drives are unable to access subchannel data at all.

Any attempts to preserve the full set of data channel, session and tracks is inhibited by the fact that there is no good, open and mature file format to describe the contents of a CD precisely. Proprietary and ad-hoc formats exist, but none are very widely supported, standardized or even documented. Even for simple Red Book Compact Disk Digital Audio media, there is only one standardized, preservation-friendly format that accurately captures the session, tracks and gaps – the ADL format [26]. This is a relatively new standard, and is not yet widely supported. Given this situation, we were forced to choose whichever file format is the most practical in terms of the data it retains, given the types of content we have, and by how well the tools that support those formats can be integrated with our workflow.

Disk Images Choices

Due to the variation in media formats outlined above, our overall migration workflow must be able to identify the different cases and execute whatever processing and post-processing steps are required. The first decision we must make, therefore, is to decide what type of disk image we should extract for each type of disk.

If the original data-carrier is a valuable artifact, data-carrier disk images should be produced and treated as the preservation copy. Similarly, if file system metadata contained in a disk image may contain significant characteristics of the digital object that should be preserved (as is the case, for example, for bootable magazine cover disks) then the disk image should be treated as the primary preservation object. Ideally, this should be in a format that captures all of the data on the disks, not just the data from the final session.

In contrast, if the data-carrier could be considered simply a transfer medium and direct access to the data files is desired, they can be extracted as simple files instead. However, as indicated earlier, this can only be done once the data-carrier metadata has been properly evaluated, so practically we extract as full disk images at first, and then carefully generate the preservation master files from that image. Thus, we decided that all CD-ROM and DVD data or video disks should be ripped to ISO 9660/UDF disk images.

Similarly, the HFS+ disks should be ripped as single image bit-streams containing the volume data. These also manifest themselves as disks containing a single data track, but that happens to be HFS+ formatted instead of using ISO 9660/UDF. Therefore, the process of extracting the data track is identical to the previous case, and the difference lies only in the post-processing procedure.

Unfortunately, the Red Book, mixed-mode Yellow Book and malformed disks could not be extracted to ADL, as the available tools did not support that format. Those tools only supported the proprietary Media Description (MDS/MDF) file format (no public specification), which limits the range of post-processing tools we can use, but which can contain all the information on the disk and thus could be migrated to a format like ADL in the future.

For the Red Book disks, the content of the MDS/MDF disk image files can then be extracted in post-processing with extraction software such as IsoBuster [23]. Unlike the other extraction software we experimented with, IsoBuster could identify and read the full range of disk images we encountered, including HFS+ disk images. The breadth of formats supported was the main reason why IsoBuster was our preferred tool for post-processing MDS/MDF disk images.

Unfortunately, IsoBuster was not able to extract the audio track data reliably when operated in batch mode, and we found the most robust workflow was to use IsoBuster to migrate the disk image to another format with broader tool support. This second image format is known as CUE/BIN format (no public spec), and consists of a pair of files where the cuesheet is a simple text file describing the tracks and their arrangement on the disk, and the binary file contains the concatenated data from each tracks. This format is therefore less comprehensive that MDS/MDF, as the sessions and subchannel data have been discarded, but allows other software such as bchunk [11] to be used to produce usable WAV files from the raw binary data. The mixed-mode Yellow Book disks ripped in the same way as the audio disks, but extracting the content is slightly convoluted. After using bchunk to extract any ISO 9660 data tracks, each must be further processed to extract the files.

The malformed disks can also be ripped to MDS/MDF format, but complicate the content processing workflow further. After bchunk has been used to extract the tracks, they must be characterized using the ‘file’ identification tool [5] to see if they contain the RIFF header indicative of a WAV bitstream.

The Robot and the Automation Stack

The fundamental limitation on the throughput of the migration process is the manual handling process; the moving and cataloging of disks, and the opening and closing of jewel cases. Critically, the EAP disks are individually labeled by hand, were kept in sets associated with a particular project, and the ordering of the disks had to be retained. When processing the disks, the association between the physical item and the electronic image must be maintained, and so the overall workflow must ensure that the disk identifier is captured accurately and can be associated with the right disk image. The design of the media processing workflow took these factors into account and optimized to usage of the available staff effort while minimizing the risk of displacing or exchanging any disks.

Originally, we started working with a very large-scale disk robot: an NSM 7000 Jukebox (see e.g. [6]) fitted with 510 disk trays and 7 drives. While in principle such a large machine should allow high-throughput migration of optical media, there were a number of issues that made this approach unsuitable. Firstly, while the hardware was essentially sound, the accompanying software was intended for writing to a pool of disks, rather than reading a stream of disks. Trying to make the machine run ‘in reverse’ was extremely cumbersome, and such attempts were rapidly reduced to firing SCSI commands directly to the disk robot and ignoring the supplied software stack almost entirely. The details of the hardware design also worked against us. For example, the cartridges and disk trays used to load the machine had been optimized for storing sets of disks on shelves in the cartridge after the data had been written to them. This lead to a very compact physical design, but made the process of loading, unloading and reloading the cartridge with fresh disks rather awkward and error prone. In fact, all the robot solutions we looked at were primarily designed for the mass-write use case, but the NSM 7000 support for large-scale reading was particularly lacking.

Putting the media loading issue aside, we found that the main efficiency problem arose from the way exceptions, i.e. damaged, malformed or unusual disks were handled. If all the disks were perfect then the large-scale solution could be made to work fairly easily, with the operator loading up the machine and then leaving it to process a large number of disks autonomously and asynchronously (during which time the operator could perform other tasks). However, a small but significant percentage of the media we have seen have some sort of problem, and so the efficiency of the overall workflow is critically dependent upon this exception rate. This is because the task of reliably picking the problematic disks out of the whole batch rapidly becomes very difficult and error prone when the batches are large. It was, of course, of importance not to misplace or exchange any of the disks from the original collection, and a complex exception-handling process makes this difficult to ensure.

The British Library Sound & Vision group, in comparison, has successfully processed large amounts of compact disks using a single workstation with an array of 10 disk drives. This works well because, as all items are clearly distinct, individually catalogued and barcoded, they can be scanned and processed rapidly. As each disk represents an independent work, the fact that a manually loaded drive array will tend to process disks asynchronously (and thus not retain the disk order) is not a problem. Any problematic disks only occupy a single drive, and the others can con-tinue to be loaded without blocking. Unfortunately, this approach was not well suited to our content, due to the order of batches of disks involved, and the manual cataloguing required per disk.

Following these experiences, we moved to using much smaller robots, the DupliQ DQ-5610 [1] and the Nimbie NB11 [2]. These small-scale machines are only capable of processing tens of disks, but by breaking the collections up into batches of manageable size, the exceptions can be handled more gracefully. This size limitation can then be overcome by running more than one machine in parallel, allowing the process to be scaled up quite effectively as each batch is processed independently. Any exceptions encountered can be tracked more easily, and brought together into a single, manually inspected batch.

Both units are USB 2.0 devices comprised of a single CD/DVD drive and a robotic component that handles the disks. However, the precise physical mechanism is different. For the DupliQ, a robotic arm grips and lifts the disks by the central hole, passing them from a lower tray to the drive and, once the disk has been processed, from the drive to an upper tray, giving a Last-In-First-Out (LIFO) processing order. The Nimbie has a simpler mecha-nism, with the disks held directly over the drive tray and released by a turning screw, leading to a First-In-First-Out (FIFO) processing order. In general, we found the Nimbie mechanism to be more reliable, as the DupliQ gripper mechanism would frequently fail to grip disks, could not cope with disks sticking together, would sometimes drop or even throw disks, and following this type of hardware error, the software would usually cope poorly and the batch would have to be restarted. Also, the DupliQ can only be loaded with about 25 disks, whereas the Nimbie can be loaded with up to 100 disks, and due to the FIFO ordering, can be run continuously if necessary.

Both small robots also came with appropriate software that supported extracting the disk data as disk images, called QQBoxx-Pro3. Unfortunately, this proprietary software also forced us to adopt the MDS/MDF format, as this is the only format it supports for multi-track/session disks. However, a more significant limitation was the lack of configurability for different types of disks, meaning that we could not instruct the robot to rip the contents of the different types of disks in different ways, as we would ideally like.

The DupliQ robot came with version of the QQBoxxPro3 software, which appeared to assume that any single-track disks should be ripped as ISO 9660/UDF data disks (with an ‘.iso’ file extension), whereas multi-track disks were ripped as MDS/MDF disk images. This was helpful for data disks and DVD Videos, but potentially quite dangerous for the HFS+ format disks, as that format is quite similar to the ISO 9660 format, and so some software tools open up the disk image and attempt to interpret it as ISO 9660 data without any warning. This makes is appear as if that data is corrupted and/or missing.

The Nimbie robot came with a later version of QQBoxxPro3 (, which instead simply ripped all disks as MDS/MDF images. This leads to more complete disk images, but means that all of them require significant post-processing to access the data.

For our use pattern it turned out that using the DupliQ’s version of the software with the Nimbie robot created the most effective configuration.

It is worth noting that the choice of disk-copying robot can depend on the composition of disk formats in the collection that were discussed in Section 2.1. We ran samples of difficult files on another FIFO robot, the MF Digital Data Grabber Ripstation [10], whose hardware is very similar to the Nimbie. The software on the 2 robots produced useful images for different disk carrier variants, ejecting disks in different situations and left differently useful log information that permitted identifying the presence of problematic situations. Depending on the expected distribution of disk file formats, one or the other of the two robots would have been preferable.

Disk Copying Workflow

Batches of disks were received from the curatorial group, and placed in a safe location next to the disk processing station. This station consisted of a basic PC with the USB robot, and a number of other items listed in Section 5 below. Large sets of disks were broken down into manageable batches of around 30 disks. Initially, this was because of the batch size restriction of the DupliQ machine, but due to the manual-handling overhead introduced by the problematic disks, this relatively small batch size was retained so that the exceptions could be managed effectively.

For sets of disks with low exception rates, the FIFO nature of the Nimbie machine proved very useful, as larger sets of disks could be continuously loaded into the machine. Of course, having multiple machines allows the processing of separate batches to be parallelized, and we found this to be a very effective approach. Initially, we set up two processing stations, running a DupliQ unit and a Nimbie in parallel. However, working with the two different disk-processing orders (LIFO v. FIFO) meant performing two different cataloging processes, one noting the disk identifiers in reverse, recording the disk metadata became a risky procedure. Furthermore, as indicated above, the DupliQ hardware was slightly less robust and reacted badly to difficult disks. Therefore, we moved to running two Nimbie units in parallel instead.

With these two processing stations running in parallel we were able to achieve processing rates of 1,050 disks per month, corresponding to data rates of 2.2 TB per month. The parallel robots had allowed us to minimize the fraction of the time spent waiting for the processing to finish, before the next load of disks could be processed, while overlapping the manual handling with the extraction process as much as possible. The limiting factor in the process at that point was the need to manually create metadata.

Handling Defective Disks and Other Exceptions

We found a range of particularly problematic disks, with the majority of them being physically malformed in some way that made them unreadable. In some cases, this manifested itself as disks that hung for long times in the drive, after which they were reported as being unrecognized. In others, the extraction would start as normal, but would slow down and eventually hang due to some local disk error. In rare cases, manual recovery of these disks was possible just using a different combination of drive hardware and ripping software. Usually, however, our only option was to make the curators aware of the issue as soon as possible, so that they could get in touch with the original authors promptly and get the content re-submitted on new media. In general, we found that disk problems or failures were correlated, i.e. most projects would have no problems, but some would have many problems. It was not possible to determine the root cause of these problems, but clearly systematic failures during the disk-burning process seems to be a more likely cause than simple disk aging or bad disk batches due to manufacturing defects.

Sometimes the cause for stabilization failures was unrelated to production properties of the disk or files. Problems with statically charged disks could be handled by attaching anti-static straps. Similarly, dirty disks tend to stick together. Since the EAP disks are not valuable artifacts that need to be protected in the long run and since our disk drives were inexpensive and did not justify thorough disk cleaning in order to protect the drives, we did not rigorously clean disks as a matter of principle. If visual inspection showed dust we used a powerful camera lens cleaner to blow it off. A compressor proved to be too noisy for the shared office environment. More stubborn dirt was washed off using a solution of distilled water and isopropyl alcohol in equal parts. We used camera lens microfiber cloths for wet and subsequent dry cleaning and were careful to clean disks radially from the center of the disk straight to the outer edge in order to avoid inadvertently scratching consecutive data. We received valuable advice from the British Library Sound and Vision studios on disk cleaning issues. In one case, the cause of stabilization failure turned out to be labels that were affixed to the disks. The paper used for the labels was too thick and caught in the disk drive. We placed moist cloth onto the labels in order to soften and peel them off. For severely scratched disks we were able to borrow a disk polishing machine that physically polishes off some of the disk’s thickness to remove scratches.


Creative Commons Licence
Keeping Codes
by Andrew N. Jackson
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